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Crimea and punishment

Putin miscalculates peninsula’s resistance

Now that the Russian parliament has rubber-stamped Russian President Vladimir Putin’s request to invade Ukraine, a few observations are already in order.

What seems to have happened in the Crimea so far is a grotesque imitation of the Maidan protests that ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Under the cover of some street protesters, masked self-defense forces with the help of Ukrainian Berkut – evidently including units responsible for the crackdown in Kiev – captured government buildings to force a political decision to recognize Yanukovych as president. Armed gunmen without identifying insignia captured two airports (as well as a center for investigative journalism), disrupted communications with the mainland and have been blocking some Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula. Last weekend, the Crimean government then requested Russia’s help, as did Yanukovych, who is now obviously Putin’s puppet. That then let Putin plausibly deny his actions as an invasion.

If the plan is to install Yanukovych in a Russian-controlled Crimean mini-state, it might work, for a while. But that does not mean it will be easy. Putin’s imperialist gambit may turn out to be his Waterloo.

To see why, just open a map. That narrow strip of land tethering northern Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland, called the Perokop Isthmus, is the peninsula’s lifeline. What’s left out of most Western analyses of Putin’s brazen military intervention is the Crimea’s complete economic dependence on the mainland.

That’s why the Crimea is even a part of Ukraine. Don’t believe that myth about the peninsula being a “gift” from Nikita Khrushchev to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.

Then, the movement had genuine public support because the collapse of the Soviet Union left a disgruntled Russian majority on the peninsula. But the only reason Crimea had a Russian majority was because Joseph Stalin deported native Crimean Tatars to Central Asia after World War II and resettled Russians to replace them.

Crimea suffered terribly during the war. Its transfer from the Russian Soviet republic to the Ukrainian one made little substantive difference in the totalitarian Communist state. But it was a completely sober decision for Ukraine to take over the peninsula’s rebuilding since Moscow was too far away and was mucking the whole thing up.

Most of the Crimea is basically a desert. It is impossible to sustain its 2 million people – including agriculture and the substantial tourist industry – without Ukrainian water. Current supplies aren’t even enough.

The Crimea’s dependence on Ukraine for nearly all of its electricity makes it equally vulnerable to nonviolent retaliation. One suggestion making the rounds of the Ukrainian Internet is that the mainland, with warning, shut off the power for 15 minutes. It may not normalize the situation, but it could give Moscow pause. Of course, Russia could retaliate by cutting off Ukrainian gas supplies, but that would mean cutting off much of Europe as well.

So, while Putin rattles his sabers, the authorities in Kiev might decide to just hold tight, for now. If Yanukovych destroyed his own power, he may very well destroy Putin’s as well. The fugitive ex-president, whose greed extended deep into the peninsula, isn’t a popular figure there either and any efforts to install him – especially if they bring real hardship to the locals – may spark a Maidan II.

That’s because the Crimea has changed since the 1990s. After independence, Ukraine welcomed back the Crimean Tatars. Some 300,000 have returned and their numbers are growing. They strongly oppose any separatism, and they will not go peacefully into a Russian-controlled, authoritarian “Yanukistan.” Not only are they extremely well organized, they are Muslims with friends. Representatives from Russia’s Tatarstan region are already supporting them. Turkey, which controlled the Crimea for much longer than Russia ever did and has close ties with the Crimean Tatars, is watching. So are Chechen rebels.

The Crimea could explode into bloodshed. To prevent if from happening, maybe turning off the power for 15 minutes will force a reboot in Putin’s aggressive, misguided and ultimately doomed scheme.

Mary Mycio is a Slate contributor. Her most recent book is “Doing Bizness: A Nuclear Thriller,” about Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament in the 1990s.